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Hybrid hummer spotted in Oregon excites birders

Several Eugene-area birders believe they have documented the existence of a never-before-proven cross between two of North America's most common species of hummingbirds, Anna's and Rufous.

The apparent hybrid was spotted on Skinner Butte in Eugene last month by veteran birder David Irons, among others.

"It popped up on this branch and I started looking at it," said Irons, who then spent several minutes going through a mental checklist of hummingbird species and their characteristics.

This bird didn't match any of them.

"After about five minutes I said, 'I think it's a hybrid and likely a Rufous-Anna's hybrid,' " Irons said.

He said the colorful hummer looks mostly like an Anna's from the front, but that its tail characteristics and coloration are those of a Rufous.

He and another birder, Barry McKenzie, took photos of the bird. But their cameras weren't capable of the detailed close-up views necessary to remove all doubt about its lineage.

So they put out a call for photographic help and Peter Petricelli of Eugene responded.

Accompanied by Irons, Petricelli went to Skinner Butte the next day and used a Nikon D2x camera with a 600 mm lens on a tripod to photograph the hummer from a path about 30 feet away.

Fortunately, male hummingbirds are very territorial this time of year and usually stay within a small area for several weeks.

"David had determined where the display territory was and where the bird would continuously likely be seen, even to the exact tip of a branch the bird would spend most of the time landing on," Petricelli said.

A crowd of about 15 local birders watched the photo shoot.

"The bird was coming and going with the branch tip more or less at the center of its morning activity," Petricelli said.

"It would always come back and land on that branch tip every 5 minutes or so and rest for a few minutes there before charging around its territory again," he added.

A Petricelli photo of the bird has been posted for viewing online at www.flyfishingfotography.com/hummer_hybrid_001.htm.

Irons said Petricelli's photos should be enough to satisfy even the most skeptical ornithologists.

"I was blown away when I got online and saw them," Irons said. "They're big enough you can see individual feathers on the bird."

Irons said he and McKenzie plan to submit an article on the hybrid hummer to one of the popular birding magazines.

While many examples of hummingbird hybridization have been documented, there is only one previous case of a Rufous-Anna's cross mentioned in birding literature, Irons said, and it was not considered "proven."

"At this point it looks like there's no well-documented record of this hybrid ever occurring before," he said.

However, Irons said the article will mention that respected Eugene bird artist Larry McQueen saw what he believed to be a Rufous-Anna's hybrid in his backyard about 10 years ago.

Irons said birders can only speculate whether the Skinner Butte hybrid, with its unusual characteristics, will succeed in attracting a mate.

"This bird sang like an Anna's, but the tonal quality is higher pitched and sounds more metallic like a Rufous," Irons said.

Even if the bird does find a mate, he said, "hybrids are often sterile."

Irons said he's excited about the find, even though some birders "tend to blow off hybrids because you can't count them." Hybrids may be more common than people suspect, but simply go unnoticed, he said.

Peter Petricelli of Eugene used a Nikon D2x camera with a 600 mm lens on a tripod to photograph the hummingbird from a path about 30 feet away.